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Young American team faces uphill battle

7/15/2004

Andre Dirrell has heard the talk, and knows the expectations are
low.

The U.S. boxing team is too young, too inexperienced and not
hungry enough. American boxers will be lucky to win a medal or two
in Athens against the talented Cubans and tough Russians.
"I just sit back and laugh at that," Dirrell said. "I know we
have a strong team. I see six or seven medals for us."
Dirrell could be excused for his optimism. He might be the most
naturally talented member of the U.S. team, a 165-pounder with
speed and power and a legitimate shot at a medal.
The problem for American boxers in recent Olympics, though,
hasn't been talent. The gold medal just seems to mean more to other
countries.
Floyd Mayweather Jr. might be the best pound-for-pound fighter
in the world today, but he couldn't win a gold medal in 1996.
U.S. boxers have won only two gold medals in the last three
Olympics, and were shut out four years ago in Sydney despite having
top pro prospects like Rocky Juarez, Jeff Lacy and Jermain Taylor
on the team.
For the first time in 52 years, there were no American boxing
gold medals, and just two silver and two bronze.
"The thing I feel strongly is our boxers aren't hungry
enough," said Dr. Robert Voy, president of USA Boxing. "Things
are too easy in the United States and the pros tantalize them with
all sorts of promises of fame and fortune. They don't really care
as much."
If that's to change in Athens, coach Basheer Abdullah has his
work cut out for him. He's got two teenagers on the team, and only
nine boxers overall. Americans failed to qualify in two weight
classes, further dampening medal chances.
As a group, the U.S. team has little international experience,
though Dirrell beat Cuba's Yordanis Despaigne for the gold medal in
the Olympic test event in Athens in May.
"Our athletes are so young and we only keep them around one
Olympics which puts us behind the whole world," Basheer said.
"Not having the experience is the biggest handicap."
Some former Olympians believe other things work against the
team, too, from judges who don't like Americans to those who favor
less flashy styles.
"The point system is made for the European style and I believe
the judges are biased too," said Taylor, who won a bronze in
Sydney. "It's in our blood to be cocky, and they don't like
that."
Just like four years ago, the U.S. team lacks experience but has
plenty of exuberance. It includes a 17-year-old 106-pounder in
Rau'Shee Warren, and a very focused lightweight in Vicente
Escobedo.
Escobedo usually has friends and family from Woodland, Calif.,
follow him everywhere he fights, and it will be no different in
Athens where about 15 people will travel to see him in action.
"I'm going to go out and win a gold medal," Escobedo said.
"That two weeks determines the rest of your life and I really know
what I want. When I set my mind on something, I do everything in my
power to get it."
If the U.S. team is to do well, though, it may have to rely on a
pair of Andres -- Dirrell and light heavyweight Andre Ward.
Ward hasn't lost since 1998 and has won two U.S. championships,
while Dirrell, who was fighting at 125 pounds only three years ago,
brought up the speed and dazzling skills to the 165-pound class.
Dirrell's win over Despaigne in Athens was crucial in building
some confidence for the American team against the group of Cuban
veterans. In Athens, Dirrell believes he cannot only win, but win
over the crowd.
"I'll make the crowd love me," he said. "They won't love me
when I come out, but they'll love me when I leave."
As always, Cuba is expected to be the strongest team in Athens.
But Russia won't be far behind, and the former Soviet republics
like Kazakhstan will be in the mix.
"I think the rest of the world is catching up to the Cubans,"
Abdullah said. "They're not the dominant team that they were in
the past."
In the past, some U.S. boxers seemed intimidated fighting Cubans
who might have been a decade older than them. But they also failed
to adapt to the international style of boxing, which means throwing
punches -- and lots of them.
"The Eastern Europeans come back to the Olympics over and over
again while as Americans all we get is one chance," said Taylor,
who lost in the semifinals to a boxer from Kazakhstan. "They never
give up, it's their bread and butter. If I could fight the guy I
lost to again I'd beat him hands down."
The U.S. team plans to arrive in Athens 10 days early to train
at the American College and acclimate to the time and the new
surroundings. Tagging along not far behind them will be assorted
managers and promoters trying to get the inside path on signing the
best of the group.
That has proven a problem in past Olympics, with boxers
segregated from each other by rival promoters and private coaches
who offer advice.
"We wish they would work with us a little more and give us the
leeway to prepare our athletes," Abdullah said. "They're all
businessmen so they have their own mentality and ways of doing
things, but we'd like for them to understand our situation and
complete our mission to represent our country."
Dirrell thinks that will happen, and Voy is growing increasingly
optimistic himself.
"We've got a stronger team than I originally thought when they
were chosen," Voy said. "I can see the possibility of a gold
medal, maybe two. If we can get a couple of silvers with that we'll
have done better than in the last 20 years."